May 30, 2009

Surgeon – This Is For You Sh*ts (2007, Warp Records)

Anthony Child (aka DJ Surgeon) has been producing hard-edged, industrial-tinged techno records since the mid '90s. Beginning in '02, Surgeon joined forces with one Karl O'Connor (aka Regis) to form British Murder Boys for a series of 12”s. Besides having a fantastic band name, the music stood out with heavy, aggressive textures and IDM-influenced rhythms built on a foundation of hardcore techno. Everything sounds like its been put through distortion pedals and lo-fi granular effects, while the beats have elements of tribal and off-beat house music. '05's “All The Saints Have Been Hung” 12” was my favorite in the series, with an intense, menacing vibe and pummeling beats, punctuated by a disturbing ambient piece centered around an old recording of cult-leader Jim Jones riling up his followers. I was excited to hear a mix CD by DJ Surgeon would be forth-coming on Warp Records in '07, and was very impressed with the result. A perfect bridge is formed between hard techno music and the Warp IDM sound, recontextualizing classic tracks by Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher into surprisingly danceable sequences. Many of the tracks only linger for a minute or two, and the transitions are often so seamless that you need to pay close attention to your CD player display to hear the start of the next track. British Murder Boys tracks make several appearances on the mix, producing often the most rhythmically compelling dance sequences on the album, such as the transition from Squarepusher's “Red Hot Car” into BMB's “Anti-Inferno”. Elements of dubstep/grime and raga are here as well, presenting a very impressive fusion of a wide range of electronic dance styles. While many of the artists on this disc are well worth hearing on their own terms, the mix is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

May 29, 2009

2562 - Aerial (2008, Tectonic)

2562, an artist from the Netherlands named after his postal code, caught my attention with a killer remix of Quantec's "Ray Of Hope" on Echocord Colour under his alias A Made Up Sound. The track begins in a dub techno style, but rather than the 4/4 pulse, the rhythms take their cue from dubstep, with a syncopated, steppy groove, and made me sit up and pay attention to a style that shows a tremendous amount of promise. One short-coming of dub techno is that frequently the beats are a little too slow, or mellow, or minimal to really get on your feet and dance to; it is usually more of a head-nodding type of techno. Dubstep on the other hand is extremely danceable, with (ideally) lots of rhythmic variation, build-ups and break-downs. 2562's debut full-length "Aerial" is an amazing document of the meeting of dub techno with dubstep, moving away from the UK garage-inspired sound of Burial and others, closer to Berlin techno and the Basic Channel sound. All the elements are here; echoing chord stabs, sub bass pulses, skittery percussion fills and off-time beats with a reggae-tinge. The result is both intricate enough for home listening and funky enough for club play, which makes me hope that this sound will become more popular in the near future in US clubs. "Aerial" collects most of the tracks from 2562's intial 12"s on Tectonic, an excellent dubstep label also know for their releases by big-name artists including Pinch, Cyrus, Skream, Martyn and other luminaries in the scene. 2562's material released under the name A Made Up Sound seems to have a more tripped-out, minimal dub-techno influence, and I really enjoyed last year's "Next/Density" 12" on Subsolo Records. A lot of this material sounds like it would mix really well into a straight-ahead techno set (the rolling "Techno Dread" track for example), which makes me hope that the club scene will become more rhythmically dynamic with an influx of good dubstep tracks. Time will tell!

May 28, 2009

Jan Jelinek Avec The Exposures - La Nouvelle Pauvreté (2003, ~scape)

Jan Jelinek has been releasing a steady stream of excellent glitchy house-inspired ambient material on ~Scape and Klang Elektronik since the late '90s under his own name as well as the alias Farben. Many of his albums have received critical acclaim and showed up on "best of the year" lists for their innovations in sampling texture wizardy. Jelinek's aesthetic is recycling and hacking up old loops and samples from fuzzy jazz records (hence the title of his first ~Scape full-length "Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records"), and piecing them back together to create micro-house and trip-hop rhythms. The name of the game is abstraction, with lots of futuristic DSP processing and granular mushing of samples, yet always creating a very listen-able, often laid-back groove. Vinyl static and buzzy warmth permeates the recordings, creating a timeless organic feel amongst the digital effects. I especially enjoyed Jelinek's releases subtitled "Avec Les Exposures", which seems to be an imaginary band, contextualizing his sound into a slightly (if *very* slightly) more song-form style. Some samples that make more reference to '60s and '70s pop music as well as lounge rhythms find their way into the mix, drifting away from the jazz vibe into fuzzy pop abstraction. Following "La Nouvelle Pauvrete", a collection of Exposures out-takes was released, continuing in a more down-tempo style. In '05, Jelinek released the fantastic "Kosmicher Pitch" which took his looping style and applied it to the noise textures and effects of '70s kraut rock material, resulting in very heady psychedelic vibes. Jelinek's Farben material is also top-notch and worth seeking out as an excellent example of late '90s "clicks'n'cuts"-style techno and downtempo.

May 27, 2009

Kompakt various artists - Pop Ambient series (2001-2009)

The Kompakt label was started in the late '90s by German haus-meister Wolfgang Voigt to release minimal tech-house-oriented material from the Cologne scene. The label presented an exciting new take on techno (and continues to do so today), utilizing abstract ambient sounds and experimental beats within a dance-music context. Frequently the 12"s from Kompakt would feature at least one or two beat-less ambient tracks delving into deeper abstract territory. Beginning in 2001, Kompakt began issuing CD and 2xLP compilations entitled "Pop Ambient" followed by the release year, focusing entirely on these short-form ambient pieces. The compilations made waves among both techno-heads and ambient fans, presenting a fusion of house-inspired melodic sequences and arpeggios, but stripped of dance-able rhythmic content. The tone is generally soothing and blissed out, with hardly any dissonance or noise, usually in a "loop ambient" style. Rather than 10+ minute drifting textures, the tracks are more "pop oriented", packaged in shorter 4-6 minute pieces, like ambient 7" edits or also reminiscent of some early Brian Eno works. Wolfgang Voigt makes appearances on many of the compilations under various aliases including All and Mint, continuing his ambient tradition from his Gas material, but often in a more tonal, melodic form. Dettinger and Ulf Lohman are also frequent contributors and originators of the Pop Ambient sound on their early Kompakt 12"s. Markus Guenter has become a well-known Kompakt artist with many 12"s and albums in both ambient and dance-able styles, and The Orb's Thomas Fehlmann is featured on several of the recent compilations. Finally, Jorg Burger shows up with gentle melodic tracks under the name Triola as well as collaborations with Voigt as Burger / Ink. A new compilation has been released at the end of each year, and each has maintained a high level of sonic quality and an excellent showcase for new electronic artists. This series sounds especially warm and beautiful on vinyl!

May 26, 2009

CONCERT REVIEW: Windy & Carl w/ Benoit Pioulard, White Rainbow, etc (Holocene, Portland OR 5/24/09)

I drove up to Portland this weekend for a chance to see a showcase of Kranky artists, headlined by the ambient shoe-gazing guitar duo Windy & Carl. The show took place in a funky little warehouse venue called Holocene, which features a big bar, sunken dance floor area, and smaller secondary stage with bench seating around the perimeter, which was where the bands played that night. I say bands, but besides Windy & Carl all the acts were actually solo artists, and the general sonic theme was fuzzed-out, tonal ambient textures. Unfortunately I can't remember the opening act's name, I think someone in the crowd told me it was "Tom Bullet", but I can't find any reference online. His set was really good, basically one long evolving texture with elements of guitar and electronic synthesis. Alongside him was a video artist on his laptop, producing extremely trippy psychedelic video feedback textures, pulsing on-and-off negative and positive colors, overlaid over footage of what looked like ocean waves and aerial shots of volcanoes and islands in fog, intense! Next up was Benoit Pioulard, which sounds to me like someone's name, but I think it is actually the project of a guy named Tom, who sat behind a monitor speaker on the side of the stage surrounded by instruments and pedals. His set had a very deep emotional tone, with added heaviness provided by vintage footage of a molten metal foundry and then a surreal warehouse fire and the aftermath. This set was more song-based, with distinct pieces including obscured vocals, played on different instruments; first guitar, then harmonium, then something else. I really enjoyed his "Temper/Precis" 2xLP from '08, and I think I recognized a couple of the songs from it, although I don't know them by name. As the set finished, footage of firemen drinking from tin mugs after loading bodies into trucks was playing, and the vibe was very dreamlike and intense. I also picked up his "House Of Owls" 7" featuring two amazing covers of old dreamy pop songs done in a sort of retro shoe-gaze drone style, excellent! The third set was White Rainbow, a Portland local that seemed to have a strong following in the crowd. I haven't heard his album yet, so I'm not sure if the whole set was improvised or following a track(s) from his CD, but the set had an amazing organic wall-of-sound feel, composed of many layers of looping sound. Using little shaker eggs and metal objects for percussion, and bumping the mic on the stage for a kick drum, a rhythm was created and over-dubbed into a complex loop, over which he would then add synthesizer and guiter textures, while messing with a whole row of pedals and boxes at his feet. It was definitely the most rhythm-oriented set of the evening, and had many people in the crowd bobbing their heads. The only thing missing was a visual element, following the first two acts. It seemed like the music was calling for even a very simple abstract geometric light show, but it was interesting to watch the artist manipulate his gear and hear changes in the texture of the sound. At one point, the entire rhythm track shut off and a whole different array of tonal sounds became audible underneath, and the crowd cheered. Finally, around I think 11PMish, Windy and Carl took the stage, armed with guitars and a small bank of pedals to either side. This time the visuals were back in effect, a looping sequence of what looked like arctic sea creatures; schools of fish, spiky things, lobsters, seals, manatees, orcas, creating a vibe both playful and mysterious. The set itself was absolutely top-notch, with many recognizable tracks from Windy & Carl albums from the past decade, along with some new tracks from the recent "Songs For The Broken-Hearted" album featuring Windy on vocals. Their performance of "My Love" was especially heavy, sad and beautiful sounding, and the long drawn out piece that followed which I am thinking was the first track from "Antarctica" but actually it may have been "Balance (Trembling)" from "Consciousness", anyway it was trance-inducing and really amazing. The set lasted a solid hour and each song flowed into the next smoothly and beautifully. For the tour, an edition of 500 LPs were pressed with alternative mixes and out-takes from the album, featuring hand-painted covers by Windy. I realize I should have picked up a CD version of Windy's "I Hate People", as I had previously gotten the LP version by mail-order a few months ago, but read that the mixes on each version are different! Oh boy! Anyway the whole show was a great show-case of modern shoe-gazing ambient music, and hopefully not Windy & Carl's farewell tour! In any case, I will be looking for new material from all of these artists in the future! The tour is still continuing through June, so check out Windy's myspace page for dates and info!

May 22, 2009

LABEL PROFILE: Contexterrior & Tuning Spork & Future Dub (Germany)

Contexterrior is an abstract tech-house label established by Philadelphia native Jay Haze, and a parent label to several more experimental sub-labels including Tuning Spork and Futuredub. Many artists appear on several of the labels, but each label is reserved for a slightly different style of ultra-psychedelic, ultra-minimal, click-oriented techno. Jay Haze was a name I heard often associated with minimal-house superstar Ricardo Villalobos, and as it turns out they both shared (still do?) the same production studio, and have collaborated on several records. To be honest, I typically find the super-minimal tech-house or “click house” sound to be a little bit TOO minimal, with glitchy percussion sounds that don't particularly make me want to dance as much as defragment my hard drive or work out complex mathematical equations. Villalobos, while being a sonic innovator in the minimal field, has tracks that go on about three times longer than I feel like they need to, and I get very bored listening to his material. In contrast, I find Jay Haze's production to run along a similar sonic line, yet to be vastly deeper, more innovative, and very listen-able. Haze incorporates a lot of field recordings and organic textures into his production, as well as organic percussion samples that give his tracks a unique feel. His material explores dub techno and all types of tech-house territories, but often using unexpected organic sounds in place of typical synthesizer sequences and effects. Besides his own solo releases and excellent collaborations with artists like Jeff Samuel and Robag Wruhme, the Contexterrior label has also released solid 12”s by Akiko Kiyama, Lump and several others. The overall tone of the releases is very percussion-heavy, with not much emphasis on melody or bassline, but exploring heady psychedelic rhythms on the glitchy end of the spectrum. The Future Dub sub-label is particularly interesting for an original take on the dub techno/electronic dub sound, taking sounds pioneered by Basic Channel but moving closer to the original '70s dub sound with less of a house influence, while remaining ultra-futuristic throughout. Haze's releases as Dub Surgeon as well as his '07 full-length collaboration with Michal Holy entitled “Sub Versions” 2x12” are well worth hearing. Tuning Spork seems to be releasing slightly more dance-floor-oriented records, although sticking with the percussion-heavy minimal tech-house sound. I particularly enjoyed Guido Schneiders “Earth Browser” 12” as well as this year's Alex Cellar “Trapped In Dub” 12”, very dance-able tripped out techno. Anything you can find on these labels is worth hearing.

May 21, 2009

Slag Boom Van Loon - So Soon (2001, Planet Mu)

Slag Boom Van Loon is the awkward name of a collaboration project between Jochem Paap (best known for his prolific Speedy J techno/IDM releases) and Mike Paradinas, aka µ-Ziq, label-boss of Planet Mu. Their first CD was one the initial Planet Mu releases in the late '90s, although it didn't cause much of a stir in the US. "So Soon", however, is a remix collection with contributions by many of the luminaries of the IDM/experimental electronic scene of the late '90s - early '00s. The album was making a buzz on music forums even before its release, because of the announcement that the album would include exclusive tracks by Boards Of Canada and Coil. At the time, Boards Of Canada were basically red-hot in the IDM community, having released their incredible "In A Beautiful Place..." EP and album "Geogaddi" the previous year on Warp (and, unbeknownst to fans at the time, would take another four years before their next full-length). As I recall, the 12" version of "So Soon" was released slightly before the CD, which also helped elevate the buzz (plus it included an exclusive Múm remix which didn't make it onto the CD). The album is a very cohesive unit, exploring a variety of sonic terrains in the IDM landscape. µ-Ziq explores minimal tech-house sounds in his own glitchy way, while Leafcutter John assembles found-sound organic recordings into crunchy beats. There is a heavy dose of glitchery and some noisy DSP effects, but overall the tone tends toward the ambient and abstract side. The classic warm IDM sound is captured in buzzing synth tones, but there is also a futuristic edge that the Planet Mu label is well-known for. Boards Of Canada and Fourtet both present mellow, downtempo tracks, while Pole, Horse Opera and Coil create gritty, abstract ambient interpretations of the tracks. All of the artists involved in this project have extensive back-catalogs of excellent releases of their own, so this album can be a great introduction to a wide array of new musicians.

May 20, 2009

Windy & Carl – Antarctica (The Bliss Out, Vol. 2) (1997, Darla Records)

Windy Weber and Carl Hultgren are a duo from Michigan who have been producing dreamy, guitar-based ambient music since the early ‘90s. Their style takes the shoe-gazing guitar sound of groups like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine and stretches it to infinity, producing glittering ambient music without the use of any synthesizers. Instead, e-bows and various pedals are used to sculpt the guitar tone into an endless textural drone. At times it is difficult to discern that the sound is coming from guitars at all, while at other points soft plucked-string arpeggios enter the sonic field, as well as distant, obscured vocals by Windy. I became aware of the duo after hearing positive reviews of their contribution to Darla Records’ “The Bliss Out” album series, entitled “Antarctica.” The title itself gives a pretty good impression of the territory being charted here, with three long tracks totaling about 40 minutes of abstract, tonal drone meditations. The vibe is calm and relaxed, yet vaguely mysterious and at times slightly dark-tinged, but never collapsing into noise or cacophony. This is powerful journeying music which I’ve been recommending to friends for nearly a decade. Following hearing this release, I have been collecting pretty much everything Windy & Carl have put out and have never found myself disappointed. Their following two albums on the brilliant ambient/post-rock label Kranky, “Depths” and “Consciousness” are both excellent excursions into the shoe-gazing ambient sound, as is their most recent “Songs For The Broken Hearted” double LP which Windy & Carl are now touring for (I’ll be at the Portland, OR show this weekend!). Windy & Carl also have run their own record store in Michigan for many years by the name of Stormy Records, where they have also self-released their own and others’ material through their Blue Flea Recordings label, including the fantastic “Introspection” 3CD box set of all their early, rare vinyl and compilation tracks. You can still order Windy Weber’s new solo album “I Hate People” on ltd. ed. blood red or peacock splattered vinyl directly from Stormy Records, it is great stuff, check it out!

May 19, 2009

Harold Budd & Brian Eno – Ambient 2 : The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980, Editions EG)

This is an absolute all-time favorite and frequently-suggested-album from many years back. A family friend loaned me this record (as well as David Tudor’s “Pulsers/Untitled” LP) when I was in highschool, and I still have the cassette that I dubbed both records onto (although I recorded over the Tudor side eventually). For periods of my life this was an album I would listen to almost every evening to help unwind after the day, and I eventually tracked down my own copy of the original vinyl which I still listen to regularly. Brian Eno’s original “Ambient 1 : Music For Airports” record is widely regarded as one of Eno’s most important releases, and the origin of the term “ambient music” as defined in his essay in the liner notes. While I appreciate this first release for its place in history, the sound was taken to a deeper, more beautiful level with the collaboration of pianist Harold Budd added to the mix on “Ambient 2”. Budd plays with a melancholy, improvised sound, soft repeating piano motifs and sequences, while Eno applies spatial effects and reverbs to blur the edges of the textures. Soft field recordings and what sound like synthesizer string swells play in a couple of the tracks, but the piano is the star instrument in this mix, heavy on the sustain pedal. This music is particularly gorgeous on old, crackly vinyl, as the dynamic swells of tone tend to become crackly and fuzzed-out at their loudest moments, but maybe this is just my own preference based on how I originally heard the material. More soothing and organic than a lot of synthesizer-driven electronic ambient music, this album is timeless and top-notch. Harold Budd continued on from this point producing many CDs in a similar style of lonely, ambient piano. Particularly worth-hearing are his “White Arcades” and “The Pearl” albums from the mid ‘80s, focusing more on his solo piano compositions without Eno’s reverb/fx experimentation. Brian Eno went on to a massively prolific recording and production career in a variety of genres, with many of his ‘80s ambient records being favorites of mine, as well as his more recent “generative” compositions. I have long been a fan of Eno’s production work with pop groups, such as the UK group James on their classic “Laid” album as well as their fantastic, improvisational “Wah Wah” from ’94. Many people are unaware that Eno was also the producer of many of U2’s mega-smash-albums including “The Joshua Tree” and “Zooropa.” Both Eno and Budd are masters of the ambient sound, and have many excellent records spanning the past four decades.

May 18, 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Kawabata Makoto & Acid Mothers Temple Collective (Japan)

Acid Mothers Temple And The Melting Paraiso UFO were a local group in Central Japan that I heard about several times during my two semesters spent there in ’00-’01, but never got a chance to see live until many years later. After returning from Japan, I researched the group further online, and found that a small but dedicated following of American fans was feverishly collecting the super-limited edition CDs being released seemingly monthly from the many group members. Kawabata Makoto was the central figure of the group, sort of like the leader of a Japanese hippie musician cult. Makoto claims to have grown up hearing cosmic sounds of UFOs in his mind’s ear during his childhood, which he gradually has translated into audible form by way of his guitar solos (and other obscure, traditional Asian stringed instruments). Acid Mothers Temple’s mission is to channel cosmic music from the highest UFO sources, sort of a Japanese Sun Ra but a lot noisier, and their catalogue of probably a hundred releases at this point voyages in many experimental directions. The band line-up has been composed of a huge variety of Japanese improvisation masters and unknowns, frequently changing and giving itself new names for each album, such as Acid Mothers Temple & The Cosmic Inferno and Acid Mothers Gong. The main bulk of the material can be characterized by extended passages of guitar drones and feedback, sometimes at a low rumble and other times swelling to a galactic roar, punctuated by throbbing ‘70s-kraut-rock-freak-out drums and synthesizer effects. Tracks frequently break the 15-20 minute mark, and are often trance-inducing with their pummeling rhythms and formless feedback. Other material by AMT’s side projects are less intense, and easier to listen to in general, such as the ambient meditations of Uchu and Floating Flower. Kawabata Makoto’s prolific solo-work in particular has stood out for me as some of the best in minimal, abstract drone ambient/noise that I’ve ever heard. Usually based around solo improvisations on some sort of stringed-instrument such as bouzouki, sirangi, sitar, cello, guitar, etc, the music alternates between soothing and meditative, and piercing and intense. My favorite of Kawabata’s works are his earlier ’00-’03 era of releases, as this was when I was actively collecting the band, and I lost steam as I was overwhelmed by the massive output that started happening around that point. From this period, “You Are The Moonshine”, “I’m In Your Inner Most” and “Infinite Love” are all fantastic collections of instrumental sessions on the less-noisy end of the AMT spectrum, although I realize these albums were typically limited editions of 1,000 or less, so you may be significantly more likely to find one of his many recent CDs from the past couple years. I was able to see Kawabata perform with the Acid Mothers Temple crew in San Francisco in I’m thinking ’05, and truly this is probably the best way to see this group in all their cosmic glory. UFO stands for “Underground Freak Out!”

May 16, 2009

Squarepusher – Hard Normal Daddy (1997, Warp)

Squarepusher is the main outlet for Tom Jenkinson's prolific IDM/drum'n'bass/drillcore/jazz/undefinable productions on the UK's Warp Records. An expert jazz bassist and drummer, Jenkinson began applying IDM synthesis and FX to his tracks, crossing over into a blend of jungle, hardcore techno and IDM experimentation, with a dose of live drumming and bass samples chopped into the mix. His tracks are characterized by blindingly fast drum loop manipulation, chopping up breaks in a junglist style, but with even more intricacy and abstraction. Often a rhythmic pattern will morph with each iteration, never repeating the original form, which can have a head-spinning effect. Listening to the programming on “Hard Normal Daddy”, I have often wondered if Jenkinson has some sort of super-human ability to create these micro-edits and lush layers of instrumentation. Perhaps like his friend Aphex Twin, he just locks himself in a vault for days on end, drinking coffee and dropping acid and programming franticly. However he does it, “Hard Normal Daddy” stands as one of my all-time favorite IDM/electronic albums. The tone is more melodic and jazzy than much of Squarepusher's other output, and seems to draw more on Jenkinson's traditional jazz background than acid experimentation, although all the elements are still present here. There is a blend of live drumming samples mixed with classic “Amen” breaks and jungle drum loops chopped into oblivion, and some crazy acid bass lines played at high speed on live bass. Mike Paradinas' µ-Ziq and other artists on his Planet Mu label continued to take this drill'n'bass sound to further and faster extremes in the late '90s – early '00s, such as on µ-Ziq's classic album “Lunatic Harness.” Squarepusher has changed and evolved in styles with each of his releases, at times going further into the live-drums-and-bass-direction with the downtempo “Music Is Rotted One Note” and “Budakhan Mindphone” EP (another favorite of mine). His newer material has continued in his high-speed, one-man-band IDM sound, and pretty much all of his output on Warp is worth hearing.

May 15, 2009

The Clientele – The Violet Hour (2003, Pointy)

The Clientele are a UK trio who put out a whole slew of 7”s between '98 and '02, along with a couple full-lengths on Pointy Records, in a dreamy, vintage-sounding brit-pop style. While their first album “Suburban Light” is a more straight-ahead rock album with a slightly '60s UK sound, their more dreamy side came through on their following “Lost Weekend” EP and '03's “The Violet Hour”. In this mix, the vocals are drenched in reverb, set back as more of an instrumental tone than straight-on lyrical expression. The guitar and drums are generally subdued, acoustic and mostly un-effected besides a soft reverb. The overall mood is summery and calm, slightly lonely and melancholy, but overall soothing. It reminds me slightly of the Cocteau Twins in that the vocals are obscured and hard to discern, helping the listener (me, at least) to focus less on the lyrics and appreciate the overall musical experience. The pace tends toward the down-tempo, chilled-out side, making the album very listenable and pleasant background music. The songs are expertly crafted, with long instrumental passages and intricate melodies, and quite catchy in spite of some of the words being obscured in reverb, perhaps more appropriate for humming than singing along. This album came at a time in my life when I had pretty much stopped paying attention to guitar-oriented vocal pop and rock music, focusing more on the electronic, abstract and “deep listening” side of the spectrum, but “The Violet Hour” made enough of an impression that I am still listening to it today.

May 14, 2009

Kuchen Meets Mapstation – s/t (2003, Karaoke Kalk)

Another unique and timeless, genre-defying album from Berlin-based label Karaoke Kalk. This time, a collaboration between previous KK abstract IDM-ish artist Kuchen and post-rock group To Rococo Rot alumnus, Stefan Schneider under his Mapstation alias. Kuchen had already made a name for herself in the IDM community with her '01 disc “Kids With Sticks,” a gentle electronica album with a chill-out vibe by Muriel Barham, ex-guitarist/vocalist of The Pale Saints. Mapstation had already produced a pair of top-notch post-rock/ambient electronic albums for the Staubgold label, and would soon begin drifting into a reggae-tinged direction with collaborations with vocalist Ras Donovan. The Kuchen Meets Mapstation collaboration is a very difficult-to-define collection of melodic, pleasant, child-like explorations; ambient in the sense that there is almost no percussion or beats, IDM-ish and post-rock-styled in the repeating, tonal motifs and hum-able melodies. A nice blend of guitar and synthesizer sounds, digital effects and organic recordings, constantly shifting and changing unexpectedly. The programming and processing is expertly done, and provides very stimulating listening. An upbeat, exuberant feeling is maintained throughout the album, never veering into overly-experimental or noisy territory. Following this release, Mapstation has continued with a new album every other year or so, with an excellent, dub-tinged full-length on the great ~Scape label in '06. Muriel seems to have since taken a break from the Kuchen project. Both artists' catalogs of material are worth hearing!

May 13, 2009

Smashing Pumpkins – Pisces Iscariot (1994, Virgin)

[Another in a series of “Highschool Discs”, albums that defined my teenage years (~'93-'99) and moved me in that deep way that seems unique to that age..] For my generation, Smashing Pumpkins were largely brought to our attention via MTV during the era of grunge and alternative rock in the early to mid '90s. There was a huge promotional push of guitar-oriented rock acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Sound Garden, Stone Temple Pilots and other big-name acts that could be found in every teenager's CD binder. In retrospect, I still find a lot of this alternative rock music to be very catchy and often quite experimental and distortion-heavy, particularly in comparison with modern mainstream pop. “Siamese Dream” was Smashing Pumpkins' big break-through record, although they had already made enough of an impression with their debut “Gish” that I had become aware of it at summer camp and happened to buy it just before their massive single “Today” started playing constantly on MTV every day when I got home from school. The album still stands up as a classic of grunge-y alt.-rock, with a fantastic array of guitar distortion pedals. Billy Corgan's unique whiny voice and Butch Vig's production sculpting a euphoric, warm tone. In my memory it seems like an eternity between “Siamese Dream” and the release of “Pisces Iscariot” although I know that they are copyrighted a year apart. The moment I saw the album in my local independent record store, I snatched it up with excitement. The opening tone of the album is quite different from “Siamese Dream”, and it stands in my mind as a classic collection of the Smashing Pumpkins in their more unrefined, experimental mode. Many of the tracks are collected from the b-sides of singles from “Siamese Dream”, making me kick myself now for not buying those 7” singles when I saw them, and there is some unreleased material as well, dipping into an even-more experimental, post-rock territory. All of the material here is catchy and hum-able, sometimes distortion-heavy and driving, alternating with soft, gentle and melody-oriented tracks. My personal preference is the Pumpkins' more melodic, softer side of the spectrum, and the opening track “Soothe” is a perfect example, an intense, minimal and sparse acoustic guitar & vocal demo that I still find stuck in my head to this day. Each track following this has many of the qualities of an album “a-side”, but it is understandable how they wouldn't quite fit on “Siamese Dream”; a relative roughness in the recording quality and slightly unrefined composition creates a unique vibe. The entire “Pisces Iscariot” set has its own flow that makes it sound like an intentionally-structured, if experimental album by the Pumpkins. The band gained even more massive fame and exposure with '95's “Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness”, but if you missed this early collection, check it out!

May 12, 2009

Arovane – Tides (2000, City Centre Offices)

Arovane is the IDM project of Uwe Schmidt, a German architect who began releasing 12”s on DIN and City Centre Offices in his mid-30s, a somewhat later age than many of the up-and-coming late ‘90s IDM artists just out of college. But with maturity comes depth, and Arovane’s debut CD “Atol Scrap” made a big stir on message boards in ’00, with a gritty, futuristic IDM sound similar to vintage Autechre, with just the right mix of static-y, glitch percussion and warm synthesizer tones. Only six months later, his second full-length “Tides” was released to even greater acclaim, with comparisons to IDM-superstars Boards Of Canada and placement on many “album of the year” lists. The album was a significantly different feel from Arovane’s IDM works thus far, leaning more into the down-tempo spectrum and away from abrasive glitchiness. “Tides” was apparently inspired by time spent at the Mediterranean seaside, and natural field recordings and tidal swells of soft static play a role in many of the tracks, alongside gentle plucked-string melodies and organic-sounding drum programming. The beats are vaguely trip-hop tinged, thus the comparisons to Boards Of Canada, but the mood is soft-spoken and melancholy and there are even some entirely beat-less ambient tracks, reminiscent of Susumu Yokota’s “Sakura”. Four of the tracks feature beautiful guitar playing by label-mate Christian Kleine, whose own releases for CCO are well worth hearing. Following this album, Arovane returned to his more glitch-oriented rhythmic IDM production for a few more years, with his most recent full-length “Lilies” released in ’04, and no new material since (according to Schmidt’s Myspace page, he is “having a break from making music”). The “Cycliph” 12” from ’02 and ‘03’s “Minth/Neel” 7” are both essential Arovane listening and have more of a connection to the soft, lonely sounds of “Tides”, mixed with a dose of futuristic glitch beats.

May 11, 2009

Fluxion – Vibrant Forms II (2000, Chain Reaction)

In 1995, the Basic Channel folks established the Chain Reaction label to release further explorations in super-deep dub techno and experimental ambient music. The label wrapped up its production in 2003, having released thirty five 12”s and eleven CDs. Many of these albums are still held in the highest regard among ambient and techno fans, and a number of the artists involved went on to have prolific, long-lasting careers, including Monolake, Vladislav Delay, and Porter Ricks. The final full-length CD release was a double-album set by Fluxion (real name, Konstantinos Soublis) entitled “Vibrant Forms II”, compiling two of his previous 12” releases along with several new pieces. The album explores similar sonic territory to the Basic Channel and Gas sound, but in a more lush, tonal ambient direction. Some natural field recordings find their way into the mix, bringing a rich organic feel to the music. Different elements of the techno spectrum are focused and experimented on track-by-track. This is fantastic mid-volume, space filling music, alternating between hypnotic, soothing and mysterious. Depending on if you're in the mood for drifting ambiance or more rhythm-driven textures, you may end up skipping around the two-plus hours worth of material collected here, but all the tracks are very high quality and manage to avoid the more abrasive and experimental side of the Chain Reaction sound. Following his “Vibrant Forms” collections, Soublis moved on to produce a series of 12”s and two full-length CDs under the names Fluxion, Silex and Unsquare Mode on his own Vibrant Music label, which explored more IDM and experimental minimal techno-oriented atmospheres. While writing this review, I discovered that Fluxion has just released a new 12” on Resopal Schallware this year, his first since '04. It is good to see a talented Chain Reaction producer still active over a decade later. Another 12” on my wishlist!

May 9, 2009

März - Love Streams (2002, Karaoke Kalk)

März is one of many projects by Ekkehard Ehlers, an artist of many aliases and labels, with multiple releases every year since '00, with a slight break after '06 and a return with a new CD this year. Much of Ehlers' work falls on the electroacoustic and experimental side of the electronic spectrum, with many buzzy, glitchy releases on the Staubgold label under his own name, as well as tech-house and beat-oriented releases as Auch and Betrieb. The März name was reserved for a collaboration project with Albrecht Kunze, and is a brilliant merging of acoustic elements with minimal clicks'n'cuts techno music. Their initial 12” on Karaoke Kalk entitled “One From The Heart” caught my attention, with its beautiful blend of ambient classical music elements and understated glitchy beats. Most of this first EP was collected on the “Love Streams” album the following year, an aptly-titled, heartfelt, sentimental collection of progressive electronic music. The album centers around 4/4 house structures, but most of the instrumental elements are taken from acoustic sources, bringing to mind classical music and folk textures. Guitar strums, hand bells and orchestral swells play a prominent role in the mix. Alongside these melodic figures pulses a rhythm composed of bass frequencies, static and soft metallic percussion. Beginning with a looping guitar passage from Nick Drake's “From The Morning”, interspersed with a minimal tech-house beat and German poetry that undoubtedly is expressing a heavy feeling, the tone of the album is established. “Love Streams” is incredibly pleasant listening, an intriguing take on experimental pop music. A further 10” and full-length CD in '04 continued the sound in a similar vein, with a slightly more deep and melancholy feel. Ehlers has continued to produce a couple albums per year in the abstract, beatless ambient realm for Staubgold, as well as a variety of collaborations with other artists in the electroacoustic and glitch noise-oriented field.

May 8, 2009

Gas – Nah Und Fern (2008, Kompakt)

Gas is the ambient house project of the unbelievably prolific producer Wolfgang Voigt, who has released literally hundreds of 12”s since the early '90s under a wide array of aliases. Many of his projects have been considered ground-breaking and innovative classics in the minimal, acid and experimental house genres, including his ultra-minimal Studio 1 series, acid works under the moniker Mike Ink, and some excellent mid-'90s techno as Love Inc. and Burger/Ink (with Jörg Burger). Voigt also established the Kompakt record label, a top-notch minimal and tech-house label still very active today, and several other more obscure experimental techno labels such as Profan and Auftrieb, and the one-7”-per-week-countdown-to-the-millennium label Kreisel99. In spite of the incredible volume of releases, Voigt's material is reliably high quality and well-produced, if a little overly bizarre and abstract sometimes. My personal favorite series of Voigt's has been his Gas albums, mainly released on the fantastic Mille Plateaux label between '96-'00, now defunct and out-of-print. The albums explored long-drifting compositions involving endless, droning samples of German classical music, processed, granularized and reverbed into infinity. Soft crackles of record static appear in the mix, and clouds of strings slowly rise and fall. Thumping below the ambient mix is a steady 4/4 kick drum and minimal sub-bass line, driving and moving the listener ever forward, creating a sense of tension and flux. Many tracks break the ten-minute mark, and it is easy to get lost in the pulse. Kompakt has thankfully re-issued Gas's four main albums in one 4CD box set entitled “Nah Und Fern”, remastered to a higher quality but otherwise untouched from the originals. Only missing from this set are Gas's haunting “Oktember” EP 12” and limited 3” CD for Raster-Noton's millennial “20' To 2000” series (his earlier “Modern” 12” as Gas on Profan is in a more gritty, swirling psychedelic ambient style, relatively different from the Mille Plateaux series). This music was incredibly influential and inspirational to me in my own composition. My only complaint is that I sometimes find the kick drum a bit overbearing and DOOF-y... I prefer a soft pulse. Nevertheless, Gas taught me that ambient drone music and minimal house music can have a common ground which I found very exciting. This music was way ahead of its time and remains an essential classic.

May 7, 2009

CiM - Do Not Multiply Models (2004, Ann Aimee)

Ann Aimee is a sub-label of Amsterdam's Delsin Records, and both are dedicated to carrying on the IDM ((Intelligent Dance Music) sound pioneered in the early-mid '90s on labels like Warp Records and Rephlex. CiM is the solo project of Simon Walley, who made a stir in the IDM community between '98-'00, releasing five 12"s and a full-length. CiM's "Service Pack" 12" was one of the first releases to get people paying attention to Delsin, who are still releasing 12"s and CD's actively each year and getting more attention on the dance floor. The sound is a warm blend of analog and digital synthesizer tones and computerized drum machine beats. Lush synth strings and melancholy sequences are reminiscent of Bochum Welt and the Rephlex sound, but the drum programming is much more intricate and futuristic, incorporating tricky DSP effects and low bit-rate samples. "Do Not Multiply Models' compiles all the tracks from "Service Pack" as well as the follow-up "Warm Data" 12" on UK label deFocus, plus a compilation track, all remastered for optimum sonic clarity. This is very listenable electronica, and a great introduction to the artist and modern IDM style. There is a nice blend of percussive workouts and pleasant tonal sequences, without too much abrassive distortion or glitchiness (two qualities I'm generally not fond of in IDM). I enjoy having music like this on while I work on the computer, as it is mentally stimulating and dynamic, without any distracting vocals or noisy outburts. Shortly before the release of this CD, CiM also put out a 12" of new material entitled "Noki Bay" in late '03, and it is great stuff. Ann Aimee artists Alex Cortex and Delta Funktionen are also well worth checking out, Cortex in particular exploring similar IDM territory to CiM, Delta producing excellent deep techno tracks. Unfortunately there hasn't been anything new from CiM since "Noki Bay", so hopefully there will be a release forthcoming soon...

May 6, 2009

Susumu Yokota – Sakura (2000, Leaf)

“Sakura” is another all-time favorite ambient album, although in this case it was hard to choose between this album and its successor “Grinning Cat”. In the end, I think I have returned to “Sakura” even more than “Grinning Cat”, but both have received my strong recommendation for many years. This CD made a buzz on some discussion forums I was on when it first came out, as it was called by many an “ambient album of the year”, with frequent comparisons to Brian Eno. Indeed the first two tracks of “Sakura” have a very Eno-esque feel; warm, melodic tones following repeating patterns slowly shifting form, echoing and timeless. As the album progresses, one realizes what an impressive palette of sounds Yokota paints with. I’ve often thought that he must have an incredible library of field recordings, as he layers up an amazing sequence of organic and acoustic samples seemingly from all over the globe. Ethnic percussion and obscure found-sounds are woven around looping patterns of tonal instrumentation, sometimes leaning into the “down-tempo” side of things, other times drifting into beat-less ambience. The lush, high quality field recordings and samples take this to a level above many synthesizer-oriented ambient releases, as many of the sounds have a very organic vibe. The result is both soothing and entirely other-worldly, with a somewhat playful, psychedelic feeling. This is probably one of those “top 10” kind of ambient albums, in that it has a very distinct, unique sound that I really haven’t heard other artists capture. 2001’s “Grinning Cat” deserves another mention here, as it takes this ambient sound and develops it more in the down-tempo/groove-oriented direction. Yokota has continued to explore both ambient and dance music in his many releases (for a while he was putting out a couple albums per year), and just about anything you can find by him is worth hearing. His deep house and disco-influenced rhythmic explorations are top-notch dance material (“Sound Of Sky” is fantastic), while his more recent CDs have explored waltz time-signatures and classical motifs.

May 5, 2009

Yoshinori Sunahara – Works ’95-’05 (2007, Ki/oon Records)

Yoshinori Sunahara is one of those prolific Japanese artists who didn’t get much attention in the US, except on some electronic music forums which I was reading in the late’90s, when his “Take Off And Landing” and “The Sound of ‘70s” albums were generating some buzz with downtempo/trip-hop heads. A former member of the quirky techno-pop group Denki Groove, Sunahara’s solo material is a mostly-instrumental blend of super-crunchy lo-fi lounge and bossa samples mixed into heavy, tripped-out beats. The vibe is psychedelic and plunder-phonic, with a good dose of humor thrown in. “The Sound Of ‘70s” has all the old, scratchy sounds of a cheesy ‘70s lounge record or elevator music, but remixed into funky, head-nodding grooves. “Take Off And Landing” is a personal favorite that was always a hit at parties, a concept album based on a ‘70s promotional airport 7” that Sunahara sampled and used to create the sonic equivalent of a “Tokyo Underground Airport” of the future. The album goes in some very bizarre, extremely quirky directions, but keeps a solid groove throughout and will make you smile. After a couple years break, the fantastic “Lovebeat” album was released, taking Sunahara’s style in a new direction. The sound is an evolution of ‘80s-era down-tempo electro beats, computerized and hyper-futuristic. Kraftwerk-esque blips and bleeps pulse alongside synthetic computer voices commanding “don’t stop”. There were also some excellent 12”s released around this time, with some more dance-oriented remixes. Unfortunately things went very quiet after “Lovebeat”, and nothing was heard from Sunahara again until 2007, when a new 2CD compilation entitled “Works ’95-’05” was released. A collection of two or three of the best tracks from each album, with a second CD full of remixes from a variety of Japanese artists, this is a great introduction to Sunahara’s musical catalog. For those who weren’t obsessed collectors in the first place, the second CD of remixes will probably be entirely new, since most of the artists are basically unknown outside of Japan (besides some big names like Cornelius, Towa Tei and Yellow Magic Orchestra). According to, a new soundtrack release for a film called “No Boys, No Cry” is planned for this Summer in Japan.